Friday, December 28, 2007

Who's Running the Farm?

Who really runs a farm? In fact, where did the phrase ever originate, "to run a farm"? More true is the phrase, "to run a-muck". We could add... on a farm. Or, "to run down", or "to run hog-wild", or "to run away". That last one would be "from the farm".

In the cold wet of winter in western Oregon's Coast Range, when the mud is knee deep and icy and all the leaves blown off the trees, there is time to sit down for a bit. This year, while sitting, I realized with some clarity that instead of running our farm, our farm is running us. This is not a good thing.

Ever since we arrived four years ago to pick up where the old timers and hippies left off, we appear to have lost our business skills of reasoning and strategy; replaced by gut reaction and salvage operations. And it's not just the farm in control. There is the weather, the land, the wild creatures of the forests and the air, and life and death that also appear to be driving the momentum.

When I think of what we didn't know when we first arrived, I am surprised we are either not maimed, dead, or gone from here. Just dumb luck, I guess. But it brings me back to the question of being in control or being controlled by circumstances beyond our control. It's a reality that farmers around the world know and live with each day.

There is no rain and the crops die; there is too much rain and the cows die. Spring lambing is successful as the ewes spread out across green pastures; the cougar is successful finding plenty of young lamb meat for her cubs and hiding it well so she can't be tracked. Wood rots with age and buildings need to be rebuilt. Animals lean on fencing and fencing needs to be replaced. Tractors break down in the middle of harvest. Irrigation pipes spring leaks and blow apart when you are farthest from the pump "off" switch.

It is all a part of the Second Law of Thermodynamics I learned about in 9th grade. In layman's terms, the law basically states that "everything moves towards chaos". The idea being that it takes more energy to keep things organized than it does to allow things to be disorganized. Given half a chance most things on this earth will settle at a level of least resistance. It is only when we humans try to organize nature to fit our needs that control even becomes an issue. As in a farm. And, once you understand that, then it doesn't seem so bad.

It's like our farmer friends down the road told us. The weekends and the weekdays are all the same to them. The animals still need to be fed morning and night no matter the day. The hay needs to be harvested when it is ripe and there is no rain in the forecast for at least 3-5 days. There are other laws at work on a farm, like Murphy's Law, and you just need to have extra parts around all the time.

But, on the other hand, you know the smell of fresh mown hay. Can rub the rich, brown soil of a tilled field between your fingers. Disappear in a garden of corn or, better yet, sunflowers. Hear the cry of a hawk circling high above. Watch lambs unexpectedly leap in play as they run across a field, "Catch me, catch me, weeee, catch me!"

Now, the "running a-muck" and "running hog-wild" aren't nearly as hard to figure out. With mud to my arm pits at this time of year, and half of it from the sheep and the other half from the horses, no wonder there are mud rooms off the house where all the stinky boots remain. "Hog-wild", well that would be Craig's description of chasing down his 450 pound hog at midnight, first from his garden and then from the middle of the highway where Craig was more concerned about the damage the hog might do to a car than the other way around. The hog ended up in the freezer within the week.

Get's one to thinking: why didn't I drop more rock last summer so I wouldn't have to deal with this winter's mud? And, how did the hog get out anyway? All good questions. All about running a farm. Or not.

Photo: Sheep are our largest "crop" and I have lots of sheep pictures so here is another. Moms and babies standing on dry dirt, which in winter turns into sticky, deep mud for everything that isn't under cover. Yuck!

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Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Christmas dinner

With two Heritage Bronze turkey toms and a hen reaching maturity this fall, it didn't take much thought deciding what we would eat for Christmas dinner. Instead of just strutting around and showing off, the toms had started fighting for dominance, and spring was still months away. The two would grab at each other's necks and pull hard on the skin and feathers at the base, screaming as they turned in circles, not letting go until I came running up yelling and waving my arms. And, that was only when I caught them. It reminded me of school girls pulling hair.

I wasn't ready by Thanksgiving to give a thumbs-down to one of the toms and bought a turkey from the market. Silly, really. But, of our animals raised for food, these birds have a way of winning my heart. They follow us around like dogs and are extremely curious, running up to see what we are doing, gobbling in approval, coming almost near enough to run a hand down the irridecent feathers on their backs. Their close sense of space is even a little alarming for visitors who aren't used to large birds flocking around in a noisy group. One day, I found the Fedex man frozen in the middle of the lawn, package in hand, surrounded by turkeys. Not exactly like Hitchcock's The Birds, but close.

They are also a noisy bunch, although Cisco has taken to exacerbating the level. I have found them face to face, the turkeys gobble and Cisco responds with barking. Back and forth they go. It isn't really a stand-off, more a cacaphony on the farm. We all seem to speak to them in response to their "Gobble, gobble, gobble." I have heard Allen and Mike, even myself, call back, "Oh, turkeys!" They turn their beady eyes in response,fluff up some more. "Gobble, gobble, gobble!" These are the reasons it made it hard to catch up one of the toms for eating. I mean, who eats funny animals?

I had already decided to hand off the killing and dressing to a Mexican woman in our community because she had grown up wringing chicken's necks for dinner. I didn't want to be so close to my turkey's end of life. I'm not that true a farmer. And then, the saddest part: the smaller of the toms just let me pick him up. No struggling, no flapping of feathers, no striking out with his talons. He looked nervously at me as if to say, "What are you doing and why are you sticking me head first into this feed sack?" I bound his legs with some baling twine, but it really wasn't necessary.

Arriving at Marguerite's house, I asked her where I should put my catch. "On the porch. Just leave him there." I had brought my largest canning pot because we determined her stew pots for chickens wouldn't do. I plopped it down beside the tom with a clatter. And, that was it. A large brown bird, lying still on the wood planks, the rain whispering down on the metal roof, the kitchen bright in the gloomy day.

I hesitated on the steps down to my car. Would Marguerite be able to save me the tail feathers so I could make a feather duster? She would try. Four hours later I had a call to come pick up my bird. The strong legs stuck up straight out of the pot. I couldn't get them to bend. There was a smell I wasn't used to and I still don't know what it was, but it almost put me off cooking the bird. I have noticed particularly pungent smells from some of our hand-slaughtered animals. Most others don't notice it but once it gets in your nostrils, it is hard to ignore and makes for an unhappy association.

I smelled that turkey every time I opened the refrigerator and all the while he baked in the oven. The smell was on my hands and seemingly in my pours, yet the meat was tasty and rich. Hard to explain since taste and smell are often so closely linked. Thankfully, he was a wonderful bird for our Christmas dinner, although the straight legs turned out to be a bit of a problem with my small oven!

I have said several silent prayers of thanksgiving to our turkey. Thank you for living. Thank you for entertaining us. Thank you for eating the garden grubs, for fertilizing the yard, for maintaining a sense of humor and curiousity when the dog faced off with you. Thank you for feeding us for many days. Thank you for my feather duster. You have provided amply for us. Thank you.

Photo: Chickens and turkeys free-ranging near a creek on our property. Cisco, the dog, is just our of the picture. A minute earlier he had had a barking-gobbling contest with the turkeys.

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Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Making Cider - Apples, Apples Everywhere!

There was a triple convergence this year, enabling us to produce our first cider ever (over 30 gallons!): we had lots of apples; we had people who picked apples for us; and our daughter's boyfriend installed a new motor on our old cider press, even knowing enough to reverse the direction of the spin so the chopper would work properly. I think the enthusiasm of our neighbors, Karen and Allen, also helped.

Okay, it wasn't exactly our first attempt at making cider, since last year we set up and ran through about ten apples before the motor froze solid. Greg had bought the press off a message board at the local college where he works. "Cider press in good condition. No time to use anymore." I think these things get passed around when interest (or energy) wanes, and community colleges are great places for both (e.g. curious faculty in their fifties). We would be considered teenagers in the realm of cider making: excited to see any liquid at all come out, while wondering what it takes to make hard cider!

There were several other parts that added to the success of our first year:

Besides their enthusiasm, Karen and Allen brought serious physical labor to the process, helping with all steps of the washing, chopping, and pressing. They are younger than we are.

Although Karen and I thought we could handle the cider making ourselves, since we are both proficient at jams and apple sauce, the boys had a more realistic view of the process. It takes at least three, if not four people. It also helps if at least two of these people have good upper-body strength!

We discovered if you make cider in the freezing cold you don't have to worry about getting stung by yellow jackets. But, you do need to wear ski socks and a ski hat because standing on cold cement and getting splashed with sticky apple juice can chill you to the bone!

It helps to have small apples because then there is no quartering involved. You just roll the little puppies down the slide and they get mushed by the chopping wheel, worms and all. Apparently, this is how they do it in the large cider houses that provide apple juice for your local super market. Think about it!

Washing the apples in a large livestock bucket, using water from the garden hose that originates out of a mountain spring, makes the hands bright red so they sting. Heating water on the stove to dump into the livestock bucket only helps a little bit, but is better than nothing.

Allen had an eye for finding apples trees, often the last remaining trees of an orchard planted years ago that had ceased to exist in any formal way. The extra apples led to a second go at pressing cider for three of us. Karen put her foot down after this, not only because our freezers were full, but because standing in a cold, damp carport for hours in November is an ugly thing.

Why did we wait until November to make cider? It was partly a priority issue with farm projects always getting in the way; at least farm projects that needed to be completed before the rains started. Soon enough, the perishability of the apples became a factor and we scheduled a press time. I thought I had covered most of the details, from tables to knives, but like all new projects there were plenty of go-fer runs to the kitchen and the shop before we ever pressed our first gallon. First it was a wooden spoon, then a strainer, then a funnel, then a bucket, then more buckets, finally a sledge hammer!

Okay, the spoon was to push the apples down over the spinning chopper, keeping fingers and hands out of danger. The 5-gallon bucket, and replacement buckets, were necessary to catch the stream of liquid flowing from the bottom of the press as Greg and Allen took turns screwing the wood plate down tighter and tighter over the crushed apples. The strainer was necessary when we poured the cider from the 5-gallon bucket into the gallon milk containers because there seemed to be a fair amount of pulp in our first batches of juice.

The funnel was needed to capture the juice from the 5-gallon bucket, held high off the ground by one of the guys, in the narrow neck of the plastic container, watched carefully by Karen or myself, ready in an instant to yell, "Okay, stop, stop now!!" or "A little more, just a little more. Stop. Stop now!!" The sledge hammer was the only way to knock the pressed mash out the bottom of the wooden, cylindrical cage and into buckets for the sheep's dinner. The tricky part here was not to bang the frozen, red knuckles of the person holding the cage in the air as he tried to absorb the shocks from the sledge hammer being pounded down and again, down. I did manage to miss once with the sledge hammer, and Allen yelped.

It's quite amazing the liquid pressed from apples. When I speak of liquid gold, we all simultaneously had the same image and called it this. The golden, brown juice flowed into our salvaged plastic containers reading 2% milk, cranberry juice, even quart canning jars, and we stacked them triumphantly on our tables. "Hey, look what we made!" Was there bonding going on? Sure. In a shared experience sort of way; also in a first-time experience kind of way. And the first sip all around was like...liquid gold.

So, maybe we weren't sitting in the middle of the orchard with the buzz of bees in the background, the smell of fall upon us, the picnic table laden with pies and potato salad, but, in that cold, dingy carport with mud on the cement, we made something to remind us of the end of summer when the nights start to cool off and the grass is brown and autumn and winter are coming.

I now have about 14 gallons of cider left in the freezer. I think this should be just enough to see us through some special occasions and still allow for the casual glass of juice. Until next November and we think to start the process over!

Top: Greg and Allen taking turns at cranking the press. Bottom: couldn't hold the camera still enough to get a good photo, but this is our group at work.

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Monday, November 12, 2007

What We Talk About

It doesn't seem that unusual these days to sit around a table and talk about the animals in our lives. Allen will mention that he hates sheep, which will lead Greg to concur that sheep are stupid. I add, as an odd non-sequitor, that the cougar is probably lurking in our woods because we have gone 6-8 weeks without a kill. Karen will murmur something about the poor lambs. On it goes, to raccoons and chickens, horses and cows, deer and elk, salmon and salamanders, Blue Herons, hawks, moles, rats, and of course, our dogs.

It's what we talk about, without even realizing how strange this conversation appears to others not caught up in the rural life we lead! Only a couple weeks ago we attended a Salmon Fest put on by our local herb company, The Thyme Garden. Every fall when the salmon come up our creeks to spawn, The Thyme Garden pays tribute with speakers, nature walks, and tables laden with fall food dishes and salmon grilled on alder planks set around an open pit fire.

We shared a table with folks from town and didn't realize until we introduced ourselves that they found our prior conversation quite amusing.

"I don't know when I have ever heard a group so entrenched in conversation about trimming sheep hooves, worming, and castration, ...and at the dinner table!" one of the guests said.

Had we moved so far into rural America as to have lost our finess with normal, dinner table conversation? What a reality check! I don't know if Karen, Allen, or Greg were as surprised as I to consider our removal from years of suburban living, when the wildest animals around were feral cats and the only toe nails to trim were those of the dog. What did we used to talk about over a meal with friends?

It's not as if we don't know what is going on in the rest of the world. On our hikes we talk politics and wars, but we also speak about our kids, ask questions about the gardens we grow, share concerns about our parents, our health, our know, normal talk. It's just that there is now an added subject: livestock care and well-being, including defending it from being eaten, and more general living off the land conversations.

What we are talking about is really like "shop-talk", except we are not trading in stocks and bonds or discussing marketing and advertising ideas, rather we are talking about picking apples in exchange for gallons of apple cider, or, in the case of the sheep hoof trimming, a trade-out for doggie daycare.

It all adds up to creating relationships and building friendships. Our conversations are top-of-mind talk because the problems are here and now. Just like any group of friends sitting around a table talking. Tomorrow it may not be about our animals, but about splitting wood or building fence. It's the same all over. Whatever is in front of us is grist for the mill. Our mill, however, might just be a real one!

Harvest was hit and miss this year. Allen told us about the nematodes digging into our potatoes; Nancy suggested we use more mulch to keep down the weeds; no one helped with the pumpkins, but Greg seemed to get it right. These chiles and tomatoes are out of our greenhouse. We brought that expertise with us! Patches, the dog, walked into the shot just as I clicked.

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Sunday, November 04, 2007

Rap and the Country Lamb

The rap music we now play at the barn, come nightfall, may not have worked as well as I would have liked to scare away our resident cougar, but the sheep are acting more hip! After losing lambs this summer, we fixed the fences, we added a spot light, we even turned on the radio - all to dissuade predators from approaching our livestock in the dark. The alternative was to sleep in the barn with a gun. Yeah, right! Fish and Wildlife, and a number of our local hunter friends, didn't seem to think this was such a rough request. Well, no one in our family raised their hands for camping and shooting in the dark, so the lights and music seemed the next best bet.

I was surprised when I first turned on the radio to find I couldn't get a nice, soothing station with Classical music - something the sheep and horses could sleep to. No, the only station without static, coming in loud and clear at the barn, played rap! The sheep lifted their heads from the manger the first time I put it on. I turned down the sound some, but needed it to still ring out across the creek towards the dark, dank forests.

I can deal with some rap music. It gives me a beat to feed by, to get the hay down from the loft, to spread the grain in the feed troughs. Then I turn out the main lights in the barn, with only the spot light pointing out into the dark, and the sheep are left to deal with rappers singing about their troubles in the hood, or sex, or girl friends and sex, whatever. In the morning I will come back to count heads.

I find in the daylight, when I start my routines all over again, the rap station has taken on a head banging vigor that grinds at my sensibilities. Before I even feed or count, I have pounced on the radio to shut it off. Ah, the peaceful sounds of country life returning to normal. The horses stretch their necks over the stall doors nickering to be fed. The sheep look up at me with sleepy eyes as if they are in need of a good cup of coffee, some rising to their feet, others continuing to chew their cud. They wander to the mangers, looking at me expectantly, looking at the empty mangers. I feed them some hay to stop their wandering back and forth because I need them to stand still enough for me to count. 28-29-30- 31. 28-29-30-31. I count them twice just to make sure. Then I count the boys in the barn field 9-10-11-12. They are only protected by proximity to the light and the music as long as they lie close.

I mentioned at the start that the rap hasn't always been good enough because this fall we lost another lamb and a ewe. We think the male lamb was pulled over a low part of the fence at the far end of the barn field, not long after I separated them out from their mothers. There was some wool on the barbed wire too high up for the sheep to rub. The cat must be full grown to have dragged a 60-70 pound lamb out of the field, over the creek, and again up the hill. We found the remains several days later and fixed the fence by adding another strand of barbed wire. Another six to eight weeks and a ewe went missing. We never found a trace of her, but the woods are dense and there are many places a cat could hide its kill.

If this cougar is working a territory, we are about due again. I have to hope there are enough deer and hunters in the woods to keep our predator at bay. No one on the road has sighted anything for a while, but I am not letting down my guard and the sheep will continue to listen to rap through the night.

It does make me smile sometimes, though, to think what the rap artists would say if they knew their tunes were not only making it into rural America, but also being used to save livestock. Sounds like a good beginning for a song. Let's see, now, how would it go ...?

Life in the sticks really sucks if you're a sheep,
'Cause the farmer plays loud music and you can't get to sleep.
There's a cougar on the loose and he's killin' all the babies,
It's enough to make you cry and to really make you crazy...

It's a start. Anyone want to run with it?

Photo from late August of lambs that had survived at least four cougar attacks

All Rights Reserved. Copyright 2007 Scottie Jones.
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Monday, October 08, 2007

A Sign for Leaping Lamb Farm

Our farm now has a sign dug in under the cedar tree at the side of the driveway. It's a subtle sign to let folks know they have arrived at the right place. Not showy or new looking, the old barn boards blend in with the greys and browns of the tree trunks and Rhodies. From far away, our farm name doesn't quite stand out and the sheep decorating the bottom corners look peculiarly like clouds, oddly brilliant in the backdrop of the rustic wood.

As you turn into the driveway the details of our sheep emerge with round bodies and almost human-like faces. There are two of them, both staring out from the sign, one in the act of leaping, the other planted on the ground. To me, this is country art at its best because the untrained artist has taken an animal she sees daily in the back orchard and characterized its most salient features into a two dimensional drawing.

This particular artist is our youngest daughter, who's goal in life is to be a vet. Burned out from taking Organic Chemistry in summer school, I tapped her for the sign while she was home on a 5-day break. When Annie is not studying, and she is with us on the farm, she either reads, watches TV, takes long walks, or creates artistic things. We have a swing in the apple orchard (where the sheep hang out) with a rooster painted on it; a concrete tile near the front door with a desert sunrise made of cut glass; a mosaic of a sahuaro cactus in the kitchen, and she even taught herself to knit by reading instructions off the Internet!

The images she creates are places she loves and animals she has touched. Arizona is in her heart, even as she wades barefoot through our creeks in the summer looking for crawdads and special rocks; animal care is in her soul, even as she fosters our baby chicks on her shoulder and leads them around like the Pied Piper through the grass.

It's great to have her home because she helps with feeding and has a keen eye for animal problems. This is the daughter who sang to the ewe the first summer we were on the farm. The dogs had attacked the sheep and bitten off an ear. After Annie and I dragged her from a deep pool in the creek, I ran to the barn for medical supplies and a halter, while Greg set out to round up the other sheep and bring them close for comfort. Annie sat, with her arms around the ewe's neck, holding her still and trying to calm the situation. I'm not sure it was a lullaby she sang, and the kid is tone deaf anyway, but it seemed to soothe the moment.

This is also the kid who hand-raised our rooster Peeps. They would watch TV together with Peeps nestled into Annie's shoulder, picking at her earrings or sound asleep, as babies are want to do. She also raised our young hens, Frankie and Johnnie, last summer after we pulled them from their shells, teaching them to follow her around the house and the yard. Our Arab horse, Moralecia, was Annie's horse growing up and when we described Moralecia as fat, Annie would come to her defense and call her "big-boned". She is also the daughter who sat beside our dying, older dog and sang her into a peaceful, forever sleep. Who wouldn't want a vet with a heart like this?

As people on this earth, we all leave pieces of ourselves in the places we have lived and in the hearts and minds of people we have touched. Leaping Lamb Farm has Annie's imprint scattered through the property, starting at the sign and spreading out to the fields dotted with livestock (and bug-scratching fowl). I hope, for her, the painting of our sign provided her brain with creative relief. For our guests, our friends, and our family, it has provided us with a sign post that we are home.

Top photo: Leaping Lamb Farm sign; Bottom photo: rooster swing in the apple orchard. Artist: Emery (Annie) Jones

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Monday, October 01, 2007

Old Fences Like New

The thing about an old farm is that it tends to have old fences - beautiful in style but ineffective for keeping animals either in or out. If you have sheep, which are like sharks when they want to get somewhere, old fences are just a distraction until they (the sheep) have broken through the bottom or the side or any part that succumbs to 150 pounds of wool and bones pressing and pressing and pressing, then CRACK! there's a new way in or out.

I have spent the past two summers patching holes where I saw them and cared; leaving others to bother me only when I was trying to corner a lamb and it wiggled out through the broken rails. Everything came to a head when we started losing lambs to the cougar, and it was partly my fault. If I couldn't contain the sheep at night with some semblance of safety, then the cougar bait was running wild. That the cougar could actually jump the fence with a lamb in its jaws didn't really matter as much as doing something to make the feat harder, while protecting my charges.

Last winter we had a tremendous wind storm, actually more like a microburst up the Honey Grove valley. This had the affect of toppling lots of trees and actually breaking many of our cedars in half, strewing trunks and limbs across our forest trails. Greg spent part of the Christmas holiday back in our woods sawing up the top half of one of these trees by himself and somehow (I have never quite figured how) moving it off to the side so we could pass.

Cedar is not a good firewood because it burns too fast and too hot. This past summer I had the brilliant idea of helping our resident logger neighbor, Dave, bond with his 14-year-old son, John. He could teach John to split our cedar trunks for rails, and I would have fencing materials to complete my pasture projects. It looked like a "win-win" for all. Dave took one look at the logs and pronounced them too full of knots for any useful wood to come out, also too "buggy" with rot. So much for bonding!

Well, Manuel had another take on our cedar. He had grown up on his grand-parent's ranch, a two-day walk to town for supplies, and learned to use and re-use anything he could scavenge in the less fertile land of Michohacan, Mexico. In Manuel's language, anything was possible given enough determination. He hiked up the trail and soon hauled back a Gator full of rails and posts. He broke an axe head and then the handle of our second axe in the process. I wonder what it takes to break an axe head? Determination, strength, and gnarly wood?!

Manuel and another neighbor, Allen, have been working on fencing on and off for the past two months now. They have added woven wire to the re-worked split rails to keep the sheep from slipping through the fencing, to discourage the cougar from finding the kill too easy, to make the fencing look like it did when the old-timers first put it up. We have brainstormed new ways to hang our gates and even thrown out our contemporary ideas, replaced by old solutions that work much better. My trips to the feed store for fencing materials have almost ceased as Manuel and Allen eschew nails for wire and split more cedar posts instead of using chemically treated and manufactured posts. Heck, the 80-year old cedar posts they are pulling out of the ground to strengthen and re-hew are usually going right back in because they seem more impermeable to the rain and the rot of the loamy earth than anything produced today.

They say good fences make good neighbors. I don't know about my neighbors, but I say good fences make for easier livestock management, less shepherd guilt over cougar losses, and wonderful presentation for an old farm. I have come to realize that new is not necessarily better, and, while there is no replacement for the old growth trees that once grew along the Honey Grove valley, there is also no replacement for the cedar posts (or our beautiful barn) made from these same trees so many years ago.

Leaping Lamb Farm (barn, hay, Lammie, sunlight) Oct 2007 018

Top: Our barn, built in 1930 after the first one burned down. Bottom: Manuel(left) with son Manuelito and our neighbor Allen standing in front of newly split and installed cedar posts.

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Tuesday, September 18, 2007

July Lambs

Leaping Lamb Farm (barn, hay, Lammie, sunlight) Oct 2007 005

It's obviously not July when I am writing this, but August got away from me this year and I couldn't very well write about things that happened later if I didn't mention our unexpected arrivals (x 4), ... proving to me there are reasons why rams are only left with the ewes for two months and not four!

Imagine my surprise to come out for feeding in the last weeks of July and notice one of the ewes hanging back in the shade of the alder trees. Why was she standing there, when the rest of the flock had made a mad dash to the barn at the sound of Pavlov’s dinner bell? And, why was I hearing the bleat of baby lambs? Lambing season was over in May. I hiked out to take a look, came back to finish my feeding in the barn, and walked to the house for some help, counting weeks and months as I went.

“Greg, I need your help.”

“What’s the problem?

“We have more lambs. Triplets way out in the field and the mother isn't coming in.”

We didn’t speak as we hiked back over to the barn field. Greg wasn’t asking questions. I thought, what was the darned gestation for ewes? How could this be happening now? I knew that my woolies and Katahdins naturally segregated themselves by breed, and, of my eight woolies, four had not lambed this year. A dismal number at 50%. Until now. Our ram must have snuck up on my orange- tagged Suffolk his last day of freedom. Sly dog! On top of that, it was a bad idea to have lambs in the summer because of something called Fly Strike, one of the most disgusting phenomena I have experienced on the farm. Flies lay eggs in the baby poop, which ultimately turn into maggots, that proceed to eat the baby alive. How do I know this? We lived through it last summer with one little lamb I nursed back to health, only to have her swept down the river with the winter rains!

We grabbed the babies out of the field, two for Greg and one for me and headed back toward the barn. The ewe followed us in alarm, stomping her feet, running in circles around us, chasing the dogs with her head down. Once secure in the sheep stall, we began to assess the health of our small charges. The heat of the day had been hard, and I ended up milking the mom and tubing two of the lambs, a method of threading a tube through the mouth and into the stomach, then pouring the milk in directly. It’s a quick way to ensure sustenance, hydration, and Colostrum. By the end of the second day, I was sure the ewe was rejecting one of her three lambs, no matter how hard I tried.

As if it wasn’t bad enough we were dealing with lambs, and a bummer lamb, in the middle of the summer, Greg and I had plans to leave for a 10-day vacation in two days. Our neighbors, Karen and Allen, had agreed to farm-sit! Under the best of circumstances, house sitting a farm takes a special type of friend. If leaving them with new born lambs was ‘above’ the call of duty; leaving them with a bummer was way ‘beyond’. Instead of reviewing simple feeding instructions for the horses, like flakes of hay and cans of grain, we had to go over how to mix and feed a powdered milk formula and how to spray lamb butts for flies!

“So, Karen, are you and Allen okay with making up formula for the lamb, heating it, and feeding 4-6 times each day while we are gone? Oh, yeah, and there’s a cougar issue…”

Karen blinked and smiled, tipped her head and said in her unflappable, soothing voice, “We’ll be okay.”

I shouldn’t have worried. Our intrepid neighbors took the triplet lamb thing in stride. Luckily, they had helped with baby lambs before. That they had to deal with another ewe delivering two days into our trip was just icing on the cake! The local neighbor vet’s suggestion they keep an eye on a third ewe almost sent them over the edge, but they came back off that edge a week into our trip. No more lambs; the farm chores became more familiar; the bummer lamb took a full bottle and even sneaked a drink now and then from her mom, and Karen and Allen finally found all the light switches in the house.

Lammie at 2 months old

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Monday, July 30, 2007

Full Moon over the Mulberry Tree

Leaping Lamb Farm (cabin,irrig pipe,spider web,cat) Aug 2007 002

Chickens roost when dusk falls. This means in the winter they are tucked in bed by 4 pm.; however, in summer I find myself trying to herd at least three or four of the wayward birds, with big arms spread wide, because I swear chickens can see behind them, toward the locking chicken wire gates. It makes herding sheep look easy!

From time to time, I get so irritated it makes sense to walk away and come back in the dark when the chickens have taken care to put themselves to bed. It’s the remembering to come back to lock the gates that sometimes slips my mind. Greg figures the chickens deserve to be eaten by the raccoons if they are going to play around so. I take a little more of the responsibility, as there does not seem to be room in a chicken’s brain for cause and effect.

The other night, having realized at 10 p.m. I had once again forgotten to close the coop doors, I grabbed a flashlight for a quick walk to the chicken yard. The moon was at full and I didn’t even have to turn on the flashlight to see where I was going. As I walked under the large mulberry tree in the middle of the yard I heard the leaves rustle and looked around for the wind in the trees. Everything was still. Just then several ripe mulberries dropped on the ground. It takes a moment to wonder whether the berries dropped to the ground because they were ripe, and this was a naturally occurring process, or whether there might be another reason.

I turned on the flashlight and shined it into the tree. Now, we haven’t looked for raccoons in the chicken yard tree since we figured it was easier to lock the chickens into their coop than to try and shoot raccoons out of a tree. It also just seemed more humane all around…. I was never much good at spotting raccoons in the trees anyway so shining the light up and down the large split trunk seemed kind of fruitless. Until, I spotted movement and the small body of a baby raccoon slowly inching its way down the trunk towards me. Once I caught one in my flashlight, I caught another, and then a third. Three baby raccoons, with tails no longer than 6 inches, quietly scooted down from the branches to within a foot of my face as they stopped for a gaze and then just as quietly started to inch back up another fork of the tree and out of sight behind the green leaves.

As quickly as they appeared, these three babies disappeared. The rustle in the leaves was gone. The mulberries remained firm on the tree and none dropped to the ground either by disturbance or nature. The moon lit up the landscape as I continued to walk over to the coop to close the doors and latch the clips in place. The chickens stirred from their sleepy stupor, aware someone or something was invading their space, but doing nothing to deter an attack. It’s a bizarre fact, but chickens lose the little ability they have to think in the dark. Another bizarre fact, you can hold them upside down by the legs and they will act as if they are already dead. Of course, giving up so easily like this usually ensures they will be dead by morning, either by knife or predator.

The babies in the moonlight of the mulberry tree did me a favor the other night. They reminded me the mulberries are ripe and ready to pick. They reminded me raccoons love mulberries as much as they love chicken. They reminded me baby raccoons are like children: they can be naïve to dangers in their midst, they can be careless and give themselves away, and they are darned cute when they are little. Finally, they reminded me to be more religious about locking the chickens in at dusk, because, one day soon, the mulberry snacks will be gone, and there will be chicken on the menu.

While this photo is not of the mulberry tree, which is just to the right of the frame, I thought this spider web was exquisite with the dew and less ordinary than the tree

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Monday, July 16, 2007

Farm Days in July

Does it ever really get that dark in summer because it sure seems as if the sun keeps coming up at around 4:00 a.m.? I resist rolling out of bed until at least 6:30, by which time the cat has walked across my back, the dog has stuck his smelly face in mine and given me a lick just for good measure, the horses are starting to fidget and squeel in their paddock, lambs are crying out for their lost mothers, and, of course, the roosters have been crowing since 2:00!

Ah, the farm days of July, when despite an increase in activities, nothing ever feels fully completed. Take water, for instance. It's Oregon where people think it always rains. But we have a secret up here. It stops raining about mid June and doesn't start again until the middle of September. All the photos with green grass in the fields? Those are from the winter. If you look closely you will notice there are no leaves on the trees. The photos of brown fields. You guessed it - summertime. You may or may not have guessed the next part. When the fields are brown, our grazing animals are not happy and search the creek banks for any green leaf they can find. If farms are set up for it, and ours is, they will irrigate their pastures, either to grow a second cut of hay, or, in our instance, strive to make the animals less grumpy.

It's Greg's job, for the most part, to take care of moving our irrigation pipe because I have the bad habit of breaking it, and then everyone is mad. I'm not sure if he sees this as Zen therapy, but once the sun starts baking the earth he will go out first thing in the morning to move the 14 20' pipes in the hay field, open the valves, shut other valves, struggle with the Big Gun in the barn field so that it is moved and level, and then head down to the creek to prime and start the pump.

I help at the beginning and end of summer. In the late spring, Greg solicits my assistance loading the pump into the bucket of the tractor. We have stored it in the barn over winter and the first thing to do is clean out all the mouse nests and bits of flotsom that have found their ways into the openings of the pipes. The pump weighs too much for either of us to lift more than 6" so we have to get the bucket under the majority of it and make sure as Greg raises it off the ground to look for parts that might get caught and break off. I also keep track of where I put my hands.

Once down at creek side we have to remember how to wire the pump into the main electrical panel, find a flat spot for it to rest, line up the intake pipes with existing pieces, and finally (and this is the tricky part) throw the washing machine basket into the deep part of the creek as we balance a 20' 4" pipe on its end to suck the water from the creek and out to our fields. It's pretty monstrous how much water we can actually move through the system - most evident when something blows up and water goes spewing all over the place. At the end of summer, I help with the reverse installation.

With added water come weeds. Besides taking care of the animals, our irrigation system waters the vegetable gardens, the flower gardens, the lawn, and anything else within reach of the 50 or so sprinkler heads we have on grounds. You all know I hate weeding. It wouldn't be so bad if they didn't come right back two-fold. So July days are filled with weeding as far as I'm concerned. Sure, there are veggies to pick, and fruits,and then the kitchen counters are filled to overflowing as I consider my expensive past-time of blanching and freezing, or cooking and canning, to preserve all the bounty for the winter, and maybe next year, and maybe the year after. No wonder farm wives didn't have jobs out of the house. They could never get out of the house except to pick more veggies and fruit!

But, July days, with all the goings on between the animals and the growing things and the water and the heat of the sun, is a bountiful time of warmth and the rich smell of the earth. The wasps buzz around the eves of the house looking for a place to create a paper hive as we sit back on the deck at the end of a long day with a cold beer and maybe a friend or two who have helped with our massive endeavors. It really takes a village to run a farm, not a pair of 50 year olds. We are still doing things because we can, or maybe to prove we can, not because we absolutely need to. It's time to make a decision for the next summer whether it is worth stocking in 100 pounds of potatoes or freezing 25 bags of corn, both of which took considerable time from beginning to end. Small farming is inefficient in the modern world, but do I get just a little joy and satisfaction knowing where my food comes from and what was or was not put in the soil? It's a bit like trading my best friends in Arizona for the more habitable climate of Oregon. The end result is bittersweet.

Top photo: Produce in the kitchen
Bottom photo: Greg moving pipe in the hayfield

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Sunday, June 24, 2007

21 Tons of Hay

Leaping Lamb Farm (barn, hay, Lammie, sunlight) Oct 2007 008

This year, on a cloudy day in the middle of June, we loaded 21 tons of hay into the second storey hayloft of our barn. There were eight of us to start and six at the finish, although Greg and I combined were worth one teenager by the end of the day, so make that five. Haying is a young man's sport and I have started to wonder what we will do when our boys graduate high school. They aren't exactly our boys, but they are the kids who have shown up for the past three summers to toss bale after bale onto the trailer, onto the hay elevator, and at each other as they stack our hayloft full to the rafters. To be fair to our daughters, this was the first summer they were justifiably absent (school and a job).

The day started around 11 a.m., which I am sure was just fine with these kids, who had probably stayed up way too late the night before. It was early in the summer break and these were teenage boys in the prime of life, outdoor kids with plenty of chores during the day, and plenty of energy left over for the nights. There was Zeb, a handsome young man with a lady-killer quick smile and an aptitude for directing the others. There was Russell, a friendly kid who spent time before and after school working on the family farm, in addition to helping out the locals when haying season started. There was Trevor, a brawny red head whose mother works at the general store; and Dustin, who was maybe related to Zeb, or to Trevor, or maybe they were all related in one sense or another because they had the surnames of the old logging families from the area. There was Tyler, the only 'city' kid, who asked how heavy the bales were going to be, before he took the job (50+ lbs.); and, there was John, the youngest and quietest in the crew, our neighbor's son, who had grown into a bean pole at 6 ' and looked older than his 14 years.

I didn't call an 11 a.m. start to humor these guys, however. We need to wait for the sun to dry the dew off the bales from the previous night. You don't want to stack a barn full of wet hay or you run the risk of a hay fire and burning down the barn. The wet hay breaks down and causes a chemical reaction, producing lots of heat that will eventually ignite. When you hear of hay fires, this is often the cause. There are only two solutions I have heard about. If you have loaded your hay in with too much moisture, you spend the entire summer stacking and restacking it until it is dry. I can't imagine the labor involved in this! If you have already determined your hay is too wet, the other option is to spead lots of rock salt over each row as you stack it to absorb the extra moisture. And, yes, we had to use rock salt last summer.

The big challenge haying in the Coast Range of Oregon is to know when is the right time to cut and bale: when it won't rain; when the hay is at its prime before the shafts start to shatter; when the farmer is free to cut our hay after he has taken care of his own. This year we got it right. On top of that, the sun didn't feel as hot as other summers and a cloud cover came over the valley in the afternoon to keep us from overheating. Usually it seems we pick the hottest day of the summer to pull the hay out of our field, so we counted ourselves lucky the hay only scratched our arms and didn't stick to the sweat, which has the effect of making you really itchy.

The first year, I think we loaded about eight tons of hay. Last year we were up to eighteen. This year we blasted past twenty one ... which is a lot of hay for 12 acres...about 850 bales in all! I guess 850 bales doesn't sound like all that much compared to some of our farming neighbors who bring in hundreds of tons, but it is far more than we can use and it's, honestly, a pain in the ass to get out of the field and loaded into the barn. Last year we bought the hay elevator to carry the bales one by one up to the second storey opening of the hayloft; this year we bought the heavy-weight trailer to handle 100 bales at a time, from the field to the barn.

The system, as we have devised it, works like this. I drive the truck in low 4-wheel drive, which keeps it at a steady pace, and Greg and the guys walk along behind throwing bales on the trailer. One or two of the boys take to stacking the hay higher and higher until the guys on the ground are tossing 50 lb. bales up over their heads and trying to knock the stackers off the top. I think we might have actually made it to six bales high this summer. It always seems to be a challenge as to who can stack the highest, tightest load so I don't tip half of it off driving back to the barn. Oh, yeah, and someone always insists on sitting on top of the stack for the ride.

Once back at the barn, Greg and I unload the trailer onto the hay elevator while several of the boys stand in the large doorway of the second floor loft and grab the bales to either throw or carry over to the crew responsible for making clean, neat stacks up to the rooftop. I have a photo of the barn piled high but it really doesn't do justice to how much hay is stacked or what 21 tons looks like. It's the stuff kids dream of jumping off of or playing hide and seek in ... or sneaking out to for a game of spin the bottle late at night.

This year I didn't embarrass myself trying to back the trailer up to the barn on every run. I actually refused to back the trailer, but instead figured out a way to pull in a large arc to line myself up with the hay elevator. Greg didn't embarrass himself by putting out his back or tripping over bales. By the end of eight hours, I thought we were doing well to even still be lifting bales. Well, I wasn't exactly lifting them by then. I had devised a method of dragging them across the ground or, better yet, letting gravity drop them from the top of the trailer.

Greg was doing better, but he had made the mistake at the beginning, of trying to keep up with the lads, so his muscles were sore and the sweat was dried in dirty streaks on his face. As for the boys, at the end of the day with pay checks in hand, they spoke of parties by the river, of meeting up and hanging out. I looked at Greg. I figured a hot bath, a cold beer, some cheese and crackers for dinner, and that would be the extent of our party for the evening. Not so bad when you look back at the barn and realize you have all the hay you need for the winter, plus some to sell, and 365 days until the next harvest!

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Monday, June 11, 2007

Frankie and Johnny

Frankie and Johnny

Frankie and Johnny started off life under Boston's warm, feathery belly in the old chicken coop; however, they ended up in a cage in our kitchen, under a warm desk lamp. I'm not quite sure why Boston is not a better mother. Maybe this has something to do with her own young life beginning in the same cage, in the same kitchen, under the same lamp, almost three years ago.

Frankie and Johnny, aka Tuxedo (I will explain later), are about a week apart in age, but both were rescued from their hardened shells. It's a tricky thing to extract a chick from a shell. It's interceding in the natural course of things, but hard not to do when the peeping inside the shell begins to weaken. Our daugher, Annie, and I had sat on our hands for three or four chicks that never made it and there was a pattern emerging. It seemed a waste to grow a chick to term only to have it fail to emerge. And, Boston wasn't helping.

Frankie turned out to be a yellow chick who uncurled his scrunched up legs, once free of his shell, and attempted to toddle around within hours. His feathers turned downy, his large knees grew stronger, and soon he was cuddling towards the warmth of the house lamp. A week later we introduced a small, black chick with white on his breast (ergo, Tuxedo), broken from his shell in a similar fashion, smaller, more frail, but free. We placed a piece of cardboard in the cage to keep him safe from Frankie until he could stand on his own and get out of the way if necessary.

Around this same time, we brought in four Heritage Bronze turkey chicks, the only survivors of an incubator malfunction at a local hatchery. Maybe the turkey business wasn't such a bad idea. Of course, one of the four immediately keeled over for no apparent reason. Of course, it keeled over while friends were watching our place for a night. We had a sad note about the bird's disposal. They had buried it in the back yard. I informed them I usually just throw the dead birds in the trash or out in the woods for the scavengers. We save the back yard for pets. Does this seem callous? I don't know, turkeys aren't that cute as poults, so there are no real endearing qualities until they develop some personality as teenagers.

Our daughter was home on a college break. This meant Frankie and Johnny had someone to play with. Annie would make sure the birds were handled by placing them on her lap, on top of a paper towel since Frankie had the bad habit of pooping within the first minute. She also saw to it they were taken for walks on the lawn. She informed us they would follow in a haphazard formation as she strolled through the soft, spring grass, chirping for her to slow down, chirping to keep up, chirping if something looked hazardous. It seemed a bit like the pied piper or something out of Gulliver's Travels, at least from the chicks' persepectives, I'm sure.

Soon enough, Annie was headed back to school and the responsibility of the chicks fell to me. As with previous kitchen-raised chicks, Frankie and Johnny were not that particular whose legs they were following around as long as it meant a belly rub at the end and some soft cooing to encourage them. The turkey poults were not a part of this process. They were too old to bond when we got them. Instead, everytime I went to change the water and the food in their box, they screamed as if they were about to be eaten. Do they have an inkling?

And then one day it was time to kick the chicks and the poults out of the kitchen. One day the place smelled fine; the next morning the strong smell of 6 week-old chicks was overpowering. If it was overpowering for us, I wonder what our friends thought even two weeks earlier! We secured a small section of the coop for the youngsters and held our breathe through the first few nights. Would it be too cold? Apparently not. Nor did they have to be taught to roost. I guess that part is hardwired in. Within a day, both chicks and poults had figured out how to jump and fly up to the rather high and large roost over their heads.

Just this week, Frankie, Johnny, and the turkeys were set free into the general population of the chicken yard. They hid when necessary from the fat, yellow hens; Peeps seems to have adopted the chicks as his own outcasts, although he is gaining quite a following these days; Rudy II could care less. Every morning when I open up the gates, Frankie will come running out to be picked up and stroked for a bit. Johnny is not quite so eager to be held, but he/she still streaks over. And, that's the next big question: hens or roosters? It is still too soon to tell.

This week we also had small children at the farm who were enthralled we could actually pick up one of the chicks. The oldest, Megan, held Frankie until he had had enough. Megan and her sister were as excited to find the eggs in the nests around the chicken yard. It seemed like Easter and took the pressure off Frankie and Johnny, who probably needed some child downtime. Too much of a small thing can become alarming.

I think I may need to find the book we grew up with called Play with Me and keep it in the cabin for families to read. It is about a small girl who runs towards the animals in the wild and cannot figure out why they run away. Finally, when she sits quietly, all the animals approach her and sit down beside her. It is a good story for the farm. It's actually a good lesson for all of us. Being quiet and calm can often get us closer to what we desire than chasing after something and never attaining it at all.

Tom turkey poult

Top photo: Frankie is on the left; Johnny is on the right. Both were wiggling in Karen's hands and pecking at her rings. Bottom photo: So, I guess this turkey poult is a Tom!

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Thursday, May 24, 2007


Spring Lambs

Two weeks ago I learned that cougar tracks don't show claws. Think of your cat's muddy paw prints on the windshield. No claw marks. Seems cats walk on the soft pads as they stalk their prey. Everything I learned about cougars reminded me of Bubba's killing techniques for the local small fauna around our house, except cougars go after larger prey, like lambs. Four lambs to be exact.

If you have ever tried to count lambs, it takes two people and about five tries each until the numbers jibe. I hadn't been in the habit of counting our 23 lambs because I didn't realize we had a problem. I had thought the biggest problem was going to be the birthing part this year. Were the lambs coming out forward, or backward, or stuck, too big, too small, rejected by their mothers? ...problems like that.

On reflection, the lambs were probably picked off one at a time. On further reflection, the ewe, as wide as a house one day and seemly not pregnant the next, probably had her lambs snatched as soon as she gave birth under the old cedar in the back field. These lambs weren't even part of the count of four.

I'm not sure I would have noticed the trouble we were in, even with four missing, except for the lamb hobbling in from the field as we came back from our walk. Allen saw him first. Just a week earlier we had had another injured lamb, but I had chalked that up to playground antics with her siblings twice her size. We had actually named Bambi at birth because she stood out from her coal black brother and sister. She was small, but fiesty, having to scavenge milk from unsuspecting ewes because her brother and sister hogged all the teats at her own table, so to speak. And, then one day, she couldn't put any weight on her back leg and she lived in the barn for a week until she could, and she took the place of Snickers for awhile.

Now we had a large, white lamb hopping on three legs, following behind his mom. Again, Karen and Allen were there to help me. Always seems they are around when I most need them. Even so, it took all three of us to catch the injured lamb. Amazing how nimble he was on just three legs! We made a soft bed of hay for him and his mother in the same stall Bambi had left just days ago.

I couldn't tell what was wrong with the leg, except it was horribly swollen, especially around the knee. Lambs don't wince or cry out so I could only guess. Broken? Sprained? Was I even looking at the right place? It was when I checked the chart, I realized there should have been two lambs with this ewe, not one. Allen was looking out at the sheep herded around the mangers. He asked how many babies I was supposed to have because I seemed short. That's when we started counting and counting and re-counting.

We spent several hours hiking the property looking for signs of lost lambs, maybe caught in a culvert or lost up a trail. There was absolutely no sign of them. I think I was still hopeful when I went out again in the afternoon. Maybe we had just missed them. Annie and I saddled the horses for a different view of the woods. The trails were slick, the leaves filling in the forest and making it hard to see ahead. Our dogs came with us and, at one point, Cisco disappeared into a dense thicket. Not a place we could follow on the horses, or really even on foot. Full of blackberries, thimbleberries and snags hidden under years of leaves and rotten brush. In hindsight, we might have had an answer sooner if we had followed him. In hindsight, we should have been carrying a gun.

It took me several days to figure out which lambs were gone. Mostly, I looked for ewes with singles, tried to get a look at the number on the ear tags, tried to figure if there were lambs with identifying markings that were gone. I tallied my sheet: two females and two males; two were woolies, two were Katahdins. I closed the gates and kept the sheep near the house day and night, until the grass was short and we hadn't lost any more lambs. Then I started to let them out in the daylight, hoping the cougar only worked at night.

Several days ago, while walking in the woods looking for downed trees to bring in for wood next winter, our neighbor Dave lost his dog Tyke into the very thicket where Cisco had disappeared. Dave dove in after his dog and soon called to Annie, "You better get over here." She crawled in far enough to see patches of wool and a leg bone. It was enough. She's a tender-hearted girl when it comes to the lambs.

As cougars don't usually eat their prey all at once,this was a perfect spot, with dense foliage above and a den-like understory below, protected from the visual and olfactory senses of our resident vultures. For lambs and humans it was spooky and hard to get to. Also hard to get away, if one needed. My lesson on cougars had included their technique of killing - taking the quarry by surprise from behind, snapping the neck for an instant kill, dragging it out of the open and into the woods. Maybe Annie wasn't just being tender-hearted. She knew when to back out of a lion's den.

It's happened again. After two weeks of counting lambs morning and night, I came up one short yesterday. I counted and re-counted; I walked around the barn and looked in all the lamb hiding places; I made the sheep walk single file past me at the gate. Always the number was 19, not 20. Today, I finally tallied the lambs I had and the lambs I was missing. This last was a Katahdin again, a male. Funnily enough he was white, just like the others. Are the white ones easier to see and, therefore, easier to catch?

I can't rest easy now until we have a solution, since we can't sit around and let the lambs get picked off one by one. Will it be dogs or traps or snares? Does anyone even care to trap this cat alive? What a waste of a beautiful animal. For now, the radio will play rap music at the barn (because I can't get the classical station to tune in) and we will keep a light on at night. I've rounded the sheep up as close to humankind as possible. Our neighbor's llama has been suggested as a defender. Another friend has a Great Pyrenees, but the dog is 10 years old and past her prime.

None of the solutions seem ideal. But, I can't keep losing lambs. We are at that point where the 'rubber hits the road', or in this instance, where the cougar needs to hit the road, because the alternative is sad and gruesome for either the lambs or the cat, and there can be no happy ending to this farm story. be continued...

These two lambs were born after the first cougar attack in the loafing shed. We kept them in the barn for two weeks just to be safe. Lucky for them, they are brown!

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Thursday, May 03, 2007

Chaco the Warhorse

HoneyGrove - Oct 2004 (fog over farm, cows, Chaco) 009

"A War Horse." That's what the vet called him after the last visit. Chaco, the War Horse. However, rather than the stately Nez Pierce Appaloosa, bred for fierceness in battle, then all but annihilated by the US Cavalary in the 19th Century, Chaco is a homely distant cousin from Arizona. But, boy, can that horse jump! Either over fences in an arena with me clinging to his back or straight up in the air as a bucking bronco at a rodeo, Chaco is a supreme athlete.

Maybe he did have a little bit of the war horse in him after all; although, I don't think that is what the vet was refering to at the time. More likely the vet was wondering how the same horse, out of our three, always seemed to be placed in harms way, while the other two remained relatively untouched. Of course there was that one time when our Arabian cut herself on a rusty car part buried in the undergrowth, as only an old farm can have. The vein blew blood all over us until the vet was able to close it off.

But that's Moralecia's story, and this is the story of the war horse, Chaco. Chaco, who tripped through a barbed wire fence in search of greener grass; who fell in a trench in the middle of the night, after jumping out of the paddock and sliding down an incredibly steep hill; who stood in the loafing shed with his leg hanging loose from the hip and us with no idea what had caused it. And Chaco didn't say and it didn't seem to faze him and we never knew. Except, looking back, I now know Chaco was going blind long before we realized.

It began at the beginning. I know that sounds like a funny sentence. Maybe I should say, "the beginning of the second half of our lives when we moved to a rural farm in the Coast Range of Oregon." Phew. Arriving in Oregon from Arizona, our horses were stressed and nervous and cold. The trip had taken two days in an unfamiliar trailer, with other horses and stops along the way. I hadn't thought to send blankets along because we hadn't used blankets in months in Arizona. The horses had shed their winter coats long ago and now we were changing everything. The temperatures had gone from 95 degrees to 35 degrees in the morning, the fields from one acre to 40, the landscape from dry and deserty to lush and green, the stabling from open air stalls to a dark, scarey barn. Who wouldn't be freaked out. We certainly were!

Our first summer was filled with more vet visits than we had had in all our horse years in Arizona. Farm visits took on an entirely new meaning since we were 25 miles out of town now and privileged to pay not only for the visit but for the mileage. Accidents only happened on weekends so there was that weekend charge as well. I had to explain to vets I didn't even know they couldn't wear cowboy hats or my war horse would be too hard to handle for any of us. Not sure this was a cowboy hat crowd anyway since most of the vets that summer were female and the guys wore baseball hats, if they wore any hats at all. Why cowboy hats turn Chaco from a war horse into a mule, we will never know, but this muley behavior wins him no favors either with vets, their assistants, or me, as he would as soon run over you as stand still.

It's been almost three years now since we saw the vet who called Chaco the "War horse". Chaco's black coloring has been replaced with grey. He is skinnier and a little less muscled than before, because, as I have come to realize, farmers don't often have time to ride for pleasure and, if they do, they feel guilty about all the projects remaining unfinished. (Note to self: start riding the horses...there will always be weeds!)

When Dr. Bergen showed up last week for some preventative health care on the animals, I asked him to take a look at Chaco's eyes. They seemed to be growing more cloudy. Since you can't ask which way the E is pointing, it's hard to say what a horse can and cannot see, but Dr. Bergen was not encouraging. The small, subtle signs I had started to notice: startle responses, hitting his head on the fencing and the stalls, night blindness, all added up to loss of vision.

Dr. Bergen's advice: Best to keep Chaco on solid trails. Best to keep him on familiar ground. Best to keep him locked in at night. But, as I said in the beginning, Chaco is an old war horse and still game for a ride here and there. He and I have worked long enough and hard enough together over the years, he will do whatever I ask.

We shouldn't take that kind of trust for granted. It has something to do with time and familiarity and maybe, just maybe, the reward Chaco gets when he comes trotting into the barn at night to the banging of the feed cans on the side of the stalls. "It's time for dinner; it's time to eat! Wait, lady, that's not enough for a donkey! I am a war horse. I am the son of a son of a son in a long line of war horses. I am Chaco!"

As I close the barn door for the night, Chaco will often add some emphasis to his point by picking up his feed bucket between his teeth and hurling it against the side of the stall, as if to say, "Nobody mess with the war horse or you will be next!" I say, "Cougars beware!"

All Rights Reserved. Copyright 2007 Scottie Jones
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Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Eau-de-Lamb and Snickers

Snickers asleep on the sheep rug - April 2007

I was expecting lambs any day. But the days dragged on past the earliest possible due date as I checked and rechecked my gestation chart. March turned into April and on and on the days passed with no lambs. And then it rained and the sheep were scattered to the farthest corners of the pastures, and, of course, we started to have lambs.

The first ewe to lamb had triplets! What a start. The problem with three, besides the ewe only having two teats, is that it is hard to pick them up all at once to bring into the barn, from far away, in the rain, in the mud. Sorry little rag dolls, still damp from birth. I had help with this first lot, though. It was Easter weekend and our daughter and boyfriend were visiting. Always ready to take one of the ATVs out to explore, Randy was the first to discover the newborns in the back pasture underneath cover of some large alders near Honey Grove Creek. He raced back to the house with the news. Greg and I walked out to check, scooped the unsuspecting lambs off the ground, and hiked back to the barn with a worried mom circling our legs. It had started.

These first lambs looked quite healthy and handsome: two black boys and a fawn colored girl. When Karen and Allen, my cow herding neighbors, who were on their way to becoming lamb nursemaids as well, stopped by the next day, we (Karen and myself) simultaneously came up with the name 'Bambi' for the little girl. So, Bambi has a name, even though it is bad form to name a lamb meant for slaughter.

To answer the question, "How do you pick up three lambs at once by yourself?", something I had to do within the next several days, this is the trick. You stick one lamb inside the front of your jacket, zip it up as tightly as possible and hoist the other two under each arm. I have to stay crouched over as I walk to the barn so the ewe will not lose the smell or sight of her little ones. It is by the grace of God we all make it back to the cozy stalls, me heaving and ready to drop a lamb at any moment; the ewe circling and grunting and trying to trip me up; the lambs wriggling and calling out; the dogs only adding to the confusion.

Such close quarters as wrapping a lamb in one's clothing, or placing it on one's lap for various veterinary duties required within the first several days of birth, carries a certain essence with it. I have named this essence "eau-de-lamb". I am not particularly fond of the smell of sheep, being more accustomed to that sweet smell of horses, yet, at this time of year, with lambs popping out all over, I wear eau-de-lamb on my jeans, in my hair, on my hands, that even a good wash with essential oil soap can't kill. Eau-de-lamb is not a fancy french dish made with mushrooms and wine, instead it is a farm perfume blending lamb poop, colostrum milk, lanolin, and a little baby pee added to the mix. It's a wonder people don't give me a wider berth down at the Mercantile as I wander around looking for baby nipples to fit on my old, scratched, baby bottles from last year's bummer lamb crop. But then, this is a town of loggers and farmers, up before dawn, and, after a hard day of sweating, smelling worse than any eau-de-lamb. Well, not worse, but not really any better either.

In all, this was a good year for lambing (so far). What this means is I didn't have to intercede in even one birth. We had three sets of triplets and several singletons (one of which weighed 18 pounds!). The rest were the normal twins. Total number: 23! My vet neighbor, Liz, had even said she wanted to come down just to pull a lamb (help with a difficult birth), and then it wasn't necessary. Wouldn't you just know I get a fantastic offer like that and don't even have a use for it?! At least I can invite her down to watch the lambs leap around as they play tag in the orchard. I think if Liz hadn't been a vet she would have made a good obstetrician since she loves baby animals...although lambs, with their soft curly wool, seem cuter than babies at this time of year.

There was one surprise death and one bummer lamb out of the group. The death happened so suddenly I wasn't even aware there was a serious problem until it was all over. One of my triplet sets had been out and about for several days with their mom. As I gazed over the fence to watch them race back to the barn, one of the lambs fell down and didn't try to get up. I waited a moment because lambs and sheep have this peculiar habit of getting stuck lying down, and I thought a few wiggles and the lamb would set herself to rights. When she continued to lie there, I decided to go over and pick her up. She felt light and weak to me. I place her next to her mother only to watch her be pushed aside as the ewe walked off with her other two lambs. I knew this routine. It looked like a classic rejection, so I decided to bring the lamb into the house for some milk and a good dose of vitamins. She was small and white and figured out how to drink from the bottle almost immediately. Not gulping, not hysterically hungry, just sucking until she had downed about 6 ounces. She lay down and made several mewing noises as I left her to sleep and went on to finish my own dinner. When I came back 5 minutes later, she was dead. I have no idea what happened.

Snickers became our 'bummer' lamb, a lamb whose mother rejects it despite all efforts on my part to keep this from happening. Snicker's mother was the wildest of our new Katahdins and Allen, Karen and I had been unsuccessful catching her right after her twins were born, to place in a stall for the night until adequate bonding had taken place. The lambs hung with their mother until the third morning when I came out to the barn and Snickers was lying in a prone position, head over his back, shivering with the cold, his mother and sister nowhere in sight. I picked him up and hurried back to the house for a heat lamp and some warm milk. The inside of his mouth was cold (death is imminent). I left the water to run hot in the sink as I read the back of the 25 lb bag of Milk Replacer. How could I forget the formula after using up two bags of this stuff only 6 months earlier?! Like most young lambs, Snickers had no desire to suck on a baby nipple until he tasted the warm, sweet milk trickle down his throat. One fear for a lamb suffering hypothermia is the lack of either will or strength left to suck on a bottle. No problem here! Snickers would have inhaled the stuff if he could have. 4 ounces later and he was ready for a nap in a box of straw I had set up in the kitchen with an old clip-on light attached.

Rather like the ugly duckling in the fairy tales, Snickers was an ugly lamb. I didn't actually think something like this could happen but all my friends agreed that he was indeed ugly. His pink skin shone through a light dusting of wool; his legs were long; his head small. We actually discussed how he looked like the leg of a turkey after it has been plucked! He needed a name but all we could come up with was Tom, Turk, Hairless Wonder, none of the names really seemed to fit. In the course of living in the house with us, the lamb had taken to Greg and, as he lay at Greg's feet in the study in his make-shift diapers (no, you cannot let a lamb just wander around without some sort of protection or the carpet will smell like eau-de-lamb forever ... sort of like cat pee), Greg suddenly announced he knew the lamb's name. Snickers had told him. I will admit there are times when names just present themselves for animals, and they are the right name, and Snickers was definitely the right name.

Snickers stayed with us in the house for several nights, sent out to play with the other lambs during the day. It is still cool here and we didn't want a repreat of the first time we found him alone. Too soon, Snickers had learned how to climb out of his box and the tap of his hooves on the wood floors made it hard to sleep at night. He would curl up next to the bed, but soon we had all had enough. The cats on the bed were edgy; the dogs didn't know what to think. Besides this, the lamb was growing so quickly the diapers not longer fastened and I had had to fashion a Safeway shopping bag into a wet suit raincoat, with a diaper thrown into the bottom for absorption, to try and contain any damage. I never knew a lamb could pee so much, or directly forward (boy thing).

Our rescue, from becoming overly besotted with this little lamb, came this week in the form of a small 4-year-old girl and her grandmother who live up the road. Snickers has been adopted into their famiy as a project on care-taking and responsibility. Both Snickers and the little girl now have a new best friend as they follow each other around during the day. Soon he will have two young kid goats to play with in the back yard too, and we will visit from time to time, but I think our ugly duckling has already turned into a beautiful white swan.

Of course, it has started to rain again and just this morning I found a new lamb lying in the mud, barely moving, the ewe baa-ing and circling. I picked up the limp white body with black markings on its nose, tried to wipe the dirt from its face still covered in yellow amniotic fluid, and carried it into the barn. There is fresh hay in the stall; the red heat lamp is turned on; I made sure there is clean water and some grain for the mom. I'll check back later in the day to see how the pair are doing. Right now I need to go down to the post office, perfumed in eau-de-lamb, hoping I will not have a Snickers II to deal with when I return, hoping all will turn out well and, soon enough, this small one will join the other leaping lambs in our orchard.

Cisco and Snickers in front of the wood stove - April 2007

(Snickers fell asleep on the lamb rug which seemed appropriate. He also liked to curl up next to Cisco in front of the wood stove, although Cisco didn't really like to be touched.)

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Monday, April 09, 2007

Frog Snacks

Leaping Lamb Farm - view up valley  April 2006

The Honey Grove Valley has a resident blue heron and, in the spring, a host, a plethora, what sound like a gazillion young frogs croaking through the night. Maybe this is why we have a blue heron at all. Meal time has never been so easy, with a snack in every stream bed and standing pool of water.

When we first moved to this valley in the middle of the Coast Range rainforest, the croaking of frogs was deafening and I was sure we were surrounded by hoards of bull frogs, large and toady looking, sitting in the irrigation ditches, waiting to jump out at some inappropriate moment and make me jump in turn. Gisela laughed as I described what I imagined to be prehistoric, over-sized amphibians lurking in the dark corners of the waterways. "Why," she said, "you are only hearing a very small frog, no bigger than my thumb." She smiled and shook her head as she opened her palm and cupped it to demonstrate.

I haven't actually seen one of these frogs yet. I've tried, but there is an invisible line - at a distance of 4' the frogs will sing all night; at 3' they are as silent as if they were never there. Frankly, my eyes are not good enough, even at 3', to distinguish the frogs from the watery murk, lined with dead grass and leaves, plant life and a water dog thrown in here and there for good measure. They say the water dogs are poisonous so I doubt they fit into the snack diet of the heron. This seems a shame since they are everywhere, swimming, snoozing, crawling through the mud, probably around during the dinosaurs, part of the primordial ooze - alternatively called Oregon mud.

The blue heron does not appear to have the same problem as we do spotting the frogs. He loves to haunt our small, seasonal pond in the chicken yard. For Greg, it's a real conflict to see such a magnificent bird, probably 6 feet from wing tip to wing tip, cool gray in color and slow to lift off the ground, picking off our frogs like veritable ducks in a shooting gallery.

I think they say frogs are a true sign of a healthy environment. But, it should be added, they also make for a fat heron. There have been times when the dogs have rousted him from snacking in the waterways around the farm, and he seems to barely get off the ground in time, his long legs dangling perilously within reach. He will glide to a nearby cedar trees, land on a branch that bends under his weight, and peer down at his earth bound tormentors. It's quite a sight to see.

The Honey Grove Valley blue heron is a fixture and has been for years. Most of us assume it is a male, but just the other day we wondered why we had made this assumption. We have also assumed it is the same blue heron, but none of us know how long a blue heron lives. Is this really a decendant of the first bird we saw, and if so where is the mate? No sooner had we started to ask the questions than Allen saw two blue herons fly overhead. So, this is the deal: either there are always two birds and we can't tell which one is snacking in my frog pong while the other is fishing at the neighbor's, or the birds are loners except in springtime when love is in the air and it is time to hatch a new brood of heron to continue the tradition of large, soaring figures gliding down the valley, scouting the pools for frog snacks as they go.

Either way, there are still frogs croaking through the nights so there must be gobs of them ... or a few that make lots of noise. One heron or two in the Honey Grove Valley are not able to decimate the population. It's more like a survival of the fittest. The valley is healthy with frogs; the frogs that survive are the fittest; the heron keeps his (or her) territory in balance and, maybe this spring, there will be a nest full of heron chicks to take up where and when the parents leave off. Yum, regurgitated frog snacks for the youngsters. What better way to start off a cool, wet morning?!

(The blue heron's favorite snacking pond and runoff ditch is in the middle of this photo, but hard to see. This is a shot up the valley looking over part of the hay field and the trees in which he would roost when his frog feast was interrupted)

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Friday, March 30, 2007

Not an Animal Tale...But About a Friend

A month and a year ago, the small community of Alsea, Oregon lost a friend. Craig touched many lives in many places, with his fiddle at the ready, his willow branches soaking for the next basket design, his "Bright Moments to you" goodbye. He touched ours personally in a way that soothed the worries of dealing with an old farm where things were always seeming to fall apart, or down, or away. We were all deeply affected by his loss, some because he was family, others because he had been gone so long and only just started to put down roots again in the community. I came face to face with his passing only the day after when I was asked to help dig his grave. Following is the diary entry I wrote last March, never completed, mostly cathartic. It is time to let it go now where it will.

Last Wednesday, in the rich loamy soil of the Oregon Coast range, I helped dig a friend’s grave, 3 feet wide by 7 feet long by 4 ½ feet deep. We are still new in Alsea but have already been folded into the fabric of this small community in ways that bring us joy and ways that bring us sorrow. Our perch here is so transitional, I wish the sorrow had held off a little while longer. And, why was I trading shovels and stories with people I never even knew three years ago, on a wintry day threatening rain, in the middle of the Alsea cemetery, with more graves than current residents; all for someone who had welcomed us to our new homestead with the gift of a widget and the offer of help?

Widgets are wonderful things. Craig wove them from willows, planted and harvested off his property, to trellis wayward roses and climbing sweet peas. If you looked closely, they were earth goddesses in disguise. A testament to his love of women and his love of willow. Earth mothers to the core. We put our widget in our front flower bed, to train the gangly rose away from the driveway, and we we took Craig up on his offer of help that day and for all the days for the rest of his life. He helped to restore our 1930s barn, and he and Greg built the only bridge over the Honey Grove to survive last winter’s rains. The boys worked well together in their own way, separated in age by a day, in experience by a farm.

Craig had only just returned from his annual six week Mexican fiesta, with tales of tequila and art on the beach and old friends and warm nights. He had already shown up to say "Hi, I'm back. I had a great break. I have $27 in my pocket. I'll see you Monday morning for work!" He was going to add those "Craig" touches to complete our cabin he and his fellow craftsman, Bert, had started in the fall. Now I would see the transformation of our simple structure into a piece of artwork, so distinctive and organic, Craig's style was recognized by all who appreciated and admired his craft. Craig never made it back to our place. He died Monday morning, ready for work, a cigarette in his hand, a cup of coffee beside him on the arm of his chair.

Dammit, I had other plans for Craig too, although I guess we all did. He would rebuild the Green Creek bridge with Greg this summer, a seemingly insignificant bridge that is anything but insignificant during high waters. He would make cane chairs for our new deck facing over the hay field, so we could all sit out on hot summer evenings sharing a cold beer and a good story. He would teach me how to dry my corn for next winter’s feed, because mine ended up moldy and discarded this year. He would respond once again with, “We can do that,” to the never-ending laundry list of building woes around the farm.

But most of all, we had thought to share many more years getting to know this carefree soul who saw life for its opportunities and bright moments. Damn. Digging a grave for Craig was never part of any plan I imagined for any of my friends, ever...

As I reread this entry, it still seems like only yesterday. Spring is settling over our valley and our world and, quickly, we will be overrun with growing plants and lambs and blue skies ... and life. The daffodils have bloomed around Craig's grave and soon I expect to see the Easter lilies his daughter planted, bending in the wind, on the graveyard hillside above the highway, overlooking our town. We talk of projects never completed and those we only now imagine working on with him. We miss the gap-toothed smile, the cigarette hanging off knarled fingers, the baggy jeans held up with a colorful, old, Mexican belt knotted at the waist. Such a shame to lose a soul; such a shame to lose a light; such a shame to lose our way a little bit, out here in the country.

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Friday, February 23, 2007

The Chicken or the (Easter) Egg

Leaping Lamb Farm - colored eggs and dad's grave in MA 4-2-07 002

The question was this. "Do chickens see in color?" We hadn't been on the farm that long and it was an honest question. You would think Gisela and Dave and Janet and Nancy, all owners of chickens, might have known the answer, but they shook their collective heads. It had never come up, this question. Why did it matter if chickens could see the color of the worms they ate or the flowers they scratched out of neatly planted garden borders and window boxes? Even if they only saw in black and white the damage was the same. I sighed, mostly about the dead flowers.

I did ask the question with good reason. I thought I might have found a loop-hole in my newly acquired farming practices. We had inherited ten chickens when we moved to our farm and several of them had the bad habit of hiding their eggs. My mentor, Gisela, had shown me how to substitute white plastic eggs every time I raided the laying boxes in the chicken house. This made the hens think their nests were undisturbed, so they kept laying in the same place. The other option was to always leave an egg or two in the nest, marked with an 'x'. The next day the marked egg was removed and a newly laid egg marked.

Always remembering to carry a marker was a problem. The marking thing was not going to work. The plastic egg deception seemed reasonable, nothing like a little switcheroo as payback for the plants. Until the day my last fake-out either disappeared or was crushed underfoot. I don't remember the circumstances, but I did foresee a trip to the farm supply store for more plastic eggs.

Talk about sticker shock. The price of white plastic eggs was $1 a piece! I was remembering my city days when I was sure we had not paid more than $2 for an entire dozen plastic Easter eggs. This was rural living robbery! I coughed up for several of the fake eggs to tide me over ... until Easter, close to five months away. Since there was no consensus about chickens seeing in color, I figured if the chickens took exception to green, blue, pink and orange eggs, I could always dip them in some left-over white house paint from the workshop. For the first time, I was actually happy to see early merchandising in the grocery store for Easter, right after Valentine's Day.

In March, with the longer days that chickens like, the laying boxes on our farm were decorated with a myriad of pastel colored eggs. I decided to reserve the blue, green, and orange eggs for later, as they seemed a bit bright for the trial run. Would the gloom in the chicken house mask the pastels of the plastic? Did it even matter? Apparently not. The chickens laid where there were plastic eggs and they laid where there were none. In fact, it may not have mattered whether I had fake eggs in the boxes after all. The two wilder chickens with the bad habit of wandering off and reappearing with a brood of ten to twelve chicks had been killed the previous fall trying to defend them. The rest of the girls seemed perfectly happy to use the supplied boxes filled with clean straw.

I inherited new chickens this past winter. The colored plastic eggs have mostly been kicked from the nests and lie under piles of straw in the corners of the coop. Even the extras I took trouble to collect and place in egg cartons on a shelf in the coop have been scattered across the floor in some scuffle from the winter. It seems like years ago I wanted to know if chickens saw in color. In the end, it didn't really matter. We always had more eggs than we could eat, even when a hen or two would sneak off.

The Easter eggs are almost funny now too. I mean, I have a chicken that lays blue-green eggs all on her own! No plastic infusion molding technique. No need for dye tablets dropped in a glass of vinegar. No need to wait for Easter. But, beautiful, large, perfect blue-green eggs, standing out against the speckled browns, the light tans, and all varieties of eggs I collect each day. And, when you crack the shell, they look like any other farm-fresh eggs with the tell-tale rich yellow yoke of birds that free range on a diet of bugs and grubs mixed in for good measure.

These days I have a different question about chickens. "How do you keep them from jumping in the window boxes and scratching out the young, spring flowers? Spilling dirt across the entry way? Digging up perennials just peeking above the soil?" The chicken yard gate is shut; the fence has been scoured for holes. I guess it's time to sit out with a cup of coffee in the morning after feeding to find the way out ... and maybe use some of my extra, colored, plastic eggs for target practice!

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